Making Jamaica Grow

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On a recent trip to South Florida, I noticed how easy it is to do business. What does that mean for our governments in the Caribbean? Should it try to do the same for its citizens? Why? I explore these questions in my recent Gleaner article.

Here’s one way to really empower Jamaica’s economic engines

MP910220850Does Jamaica’s economic development rely on radically reducing the barriers to doing everyday business? On a recent trip to Florida, I had occasion to ponder this possibility.

The bank. WalMart. Lunch. And, if I needed to, Michael’s (a craft store.) I mulled over my shopping list as I drove toward Sawgrass Mills. “Remember, you only have an hour” I reminded myself, and at once it felt like a disaster waiting to happen. I needed to make these stops before going home the following day, returning my host’s vehicle at the top of the hour in time for appointment.

As I turned out of her complex onto a three lane, empty street, I thought “Where is everybody? Not even someone walking.” I parked in Walmart’s huge lot and scuttled in. Ten minutes later I was finished, items in hand. Helped along by three employees finding stuff was easy, apart from some pesky buttons which they didn’t have. Two of these employees happened to be Jamaican, getting me used to the idea that there are a LOT more of us in South Florida than I remember.

I sped over to the bank, steeling myself for the worst. I had to make a cash deposit and decided: “Let me try the drive-through ATM. I know you’re not supposed to use cash at these things, but I don’t have time to join a line.”

Ten minutes later, after several failed attempts at scanning two of the bills, I walked into the banking hall and glanced around for the line. “Here is where I always run into big trouble” I muttered as I counted ten people waiting.

Just before I could join the line, a woman with yet another Jamaican accent stopped me to ask, “Can I help you?” I explained what had happened and she asked “May I exchange the bills for you?”

Two minutes later she returned with crisp, new bills which I quickly deposited at the walk-up ATM’s inside the building.

As my stress diminished, I drove to Michael’s in search of the elusive buttons. A few minutes later, again without luck I returned to my car for the final stop at Arby’s, a fast-food outlet. Ten minutes later (even after changing my order in mid-stream) I was done, and pulled into my host’s driveway with minutes to spare.

It was a typical hour in South Florida. “But what a way it different from Kingston” I admitted to myself. I imagined some of the typical obstacles, ranging from traffic to poor customer service to broken bank machinery. Typically, these unexpected problems add minutes, hours and even days. Many business-owners, like myself, desperately try to avoid going out on the road on errands. We delegate the task to bearers, colleagues and family members as Jamaica’s inefficiency represents a huge time cost.

It’s too bad that our government leaders on both sides of the aisle don’t take a cue from our neighbours. When I hear them talk about “empowering the private sector” I get the distinct impression that they are describing a mysterious black box they don’t understand. It sounds like magic: do a bit of financial tinkering with this and that, and the engine of Jamaica’s growth will suddenly roar to life, like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat.

Their lack of understanding is a bit frightening. It’s clear to everyone (and the IMF) that government spending will play little or no role in reviving our economy. In fact, it’s arguable that fifty years of one percent GDP growth has occurred because government has crowded out private investments.

We could start by focusing government on removing the massive (and ever-increasing) friction that exists to doing business in Jamaica. If it does so, it would allow companies to do what they do best: legally pursue their interest in making profits, hiring more/better people and growing as a result.

By throwing up more barriers, amplifying the acts of wrongdoers and paying scant attention to the needs of legitimate business, government abandons its mandate to remove friction. It makes people like me wonder. “If I moved my business back to South Florida (from whence it came) and hired some of the Jamaicans living there, could the company be more effective? And more profitable? Would I get more done?”

Patriotism aside, each business-person must ask these questions periodically; and answer them honestly. In response, government needs to set aside persistent calls for the national interest, and focus on its job of removing friction. That is, it needs to commit itself to creating an environment in which it’s as easy to make a profit in Kingston as it is anyplace else.

When government does this job well, every Jamaican citizen wins, but it’s our shared duty to make it happen.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com

 

 

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